Interviews by Jennifer Levin
Everybody, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a story to watch unfold as well as a highly personal journey each audience member takes with the cast. It’s an update of the 15th-century morality play, Everyman, which is a staple of theater education. The original is likely the first play written in English; Jacobs-Jenkins’ embraces Everyman’s serious issues of salvation while imbuing its archetypal characters with 21st-century voices, humor, and a modern suspicion of God’s existence. Everybody doesn’t make firm pronouncements about religion or faith but allows you to gently investigate your beliefs while following the action on stage.
If you’ve heard of this play, you probably know that a nightly lottery is held to assign roles. Five of the actors in the cast are randomly assigned to play Everybody or Somebody – one of the archetypal characters, like Love, Kinship, or Stuff, to whom Everybody appeals for help. The lottery represents the random nature of life and death. As many already know and others abruptly find out, no matter how safe or healthy you are, everything can change in an instant.
Director Zoe Lesser, a member of Santa Fe’s immersive theater group, The Exodus Ensemble, describes Everybody as the most experimental play of the Playhouse’s centennial season, but says it doesn’t quite qualify as immersive theater, which usually takes place outside of traditional performance spaces. “I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s more experiential and environmental than your classic proscenium straight play,” she says. “It plays with form. There’s movement. There are puppets. It’s definitely a risky show. Lighting design and projections will transform the space. People will appear out of seemingly nowhere.”
Everybody isn’t all fun and games. There is serious contemplation about life and death, discussions of illness and grief, and the general anger and confusion that would come with being ordered to go visit God and account for the things you’ve done, or haven’t done, in your life. Because of the sensitive nature of the material, as well as the inclusion of child actors, the production crew includes an intimacy director, Bianca Thompson, who also plays the role of the Usher, which isn’t one of the parts assigned by lottery.
“As an intimacy director, my role is to help ensure that everyone in the play feels confident and safe doing their jobs. In this play, there are a lot of really heavy and personal themes, so I establish practices that are consent-based and trauma-informed so that we can be having really important conversations in a way that feels open and allows the actors to bring their best selves forward,” Bianca says. “It’s really about giving the actors tools that everyone is aware of, that we all have access to. So that if we need to take care of ourselves, we have a shared language about how to do that in the rehearsal space.”
Several tragic events took place during the rehearsal process for Everybody, including mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The play becomes ever-more relevant as people everywhere wrestle with the possibility of facing deadly violence in their daily lives. “The only thing we really have is other people, and ourselves,” Lesser says of the message Everybody offers. “There will continue to be mass suffering and death beyond our comprehension. Because of social media, we’re exposed to more suffering than we ever have been before. It’s at our fingertips. I don’t think we’re built for that, but we all have to get through the day, which means doing what we can to be kind, even little things.”
Artistic director Robyn Rikoon emphasizes the celebratory nature of Everybody. “In my experience, the moment death has come to loved ones has felt like an expiration date – we all have one – but don’t know when it is. Much like none of the actors know which role they will play each night. It is because of the mystery of it all that love and happiness and finding connections becomes so delicious. You never know when it will all change. Everybody is filled with unexpected joys, ones you can only get from being chosen at random, and the true talking and listening that that brings.”
Lesser says that although the play is extremely direct about mortality, it actively takes care of the audience. “The audience is immediately held,” Zoes says, adding “Most of the characters are constantly checking-in with the audience. There are some delightful interruptions. I think it’s super accessible, and brings the audience into the journey.”